By eight in the evening on Wednesday, the night of our arrival in the ancient city of Varanasi, the wear of the day on the road had me fading at the dinner table. More than anything, I wanted to sleep. But by 4am the next morning, the sounds of the dense old town already permeating the shuttered balcony doors, I was wide awake, my mind already churning with the lists of things to do and see before we could get on the road again in three days time. I lay there for an hour and a half, but when the morning light finally penetrated the shutters, I decided to pull myself out of bed and walk to the river to capture some early morning photographs before my wife got up.
Half asleep as I wandered through narrow alleys of beggars, pilgrims and cows, I found some men drinking tea in a small stall and paid a couple of rupees for something hot and caffeinated. I then wandered down to Asi Ghat, the southernmost of the ‘ghats’ or wide stone staircases that lead to the edge of the River Ganges for four miles through the heart of the 3,000 year old “the holiest in all India. I passed a row of squatted untouchables, the poorest of the classes, who begged with tin bowls into which passers by throw a handful of rice or a small sum of money. The last beggar in the line, a young woman with a baby, caught my eye and I gave her the few coins I had.
I walked down toward the bottom of the ghat, to the muddy river’s edge, squatted low and observed for a while the daily rituals that were taking place all around me. Women were washing their clothes, families in the river shallows were bathing, a purification rite for all Hindus, and young men atop small stone platforms overlooking the river sat in the lotus position and practiced yoga to the rising sun. Holy men in orange robes and painted faces chanted, rich and poor people prayed, and the bodies of the dead lay engulfed in flames on nearby a ‘burning ghat’, a set of stairs where funeral pyres burn around the clock so the ashes can be released into the Ganges to free the spirit of the deceased. I pulled out my camera and did my best to capture some of these beautiful things that were going on around me, things that have been happening in exactly this way for millennia. Then a young voice behind me beckoned and I turned to see a boy of maybe ten years, his head shaven and his face proud, asking me in broken English if I needed a boat. I smiled and said ‘not this
morning’ and, although he persisted, I quickly changed the subject to him and his boat and father and brothers and where I was from and what I was doing in India. His seriousness began to crack and I even got a smile or two out of him after taking some pictures of him and mimicking his stern, grown up grimace. Kuran followed me as I took more photos: boats, the sunrise, bathers, worshippers. Finally, after an hour or so at the Asi Ghat, I felt like the light had peaked and had gotten a couple of good shots, so I shook young Kuran’s hand and said good bye. As I made my way back up to the stairs and toward the row of beggars, I noticed that “the young woman I had given my rupees to was following me with her eyes under her orange veil and as I came upon her, her baby in her arms, she looked at me and beamed a warm smile of thanks which would have melted the heart of the most hardened motorcycle rider. I returned the smile and it stayed with me up to the door of my hotel. In my own narrow little world, I felt as if I saw the soul of India that day.
For four days, we wandered through the back streets and ghats of Varanasi, lanes more compressed with people, animals and vehicles than any we had ever roamed. As a city, it is a microcosm of the rest of India that we saw during our month of riding there. It has enormous historical value as one of the oldest cities in the world yet its lifeblood, the Ganges, is so polluted it is classified as septic: its lack of oxygen prevents the existence of life. It is the holiest place of the Hindu faith, yet its poverty is brutish. Like India itself, it is a place of extreme contrasts that left us with emotional paradoxes as memories.